Tarik Fallous has been in the United States for 19 years, during which time he and his friends have always been on the lookout for restaurants that serve up the dishes they remember from home. For Fallous, that means Lebanese food — his mother cooked in that country for 35 years. But his friends are wistful for food from across the Arabian peninsula, and from countries like Libya, Syria, Egypt, and Morocco. So Fallous decided to open Au Za’atar (188 Avenue A, 212-254-5660), an East Village restaurant named for the unique spice blend ubiquitous in Middle Eastern cooking, where he’s employing his mother’s recipes in the kitchen.
“I always looked for a place where we could have these kinds of dishes the same way we had them back home,” Fallous says. He craved lamb shank and lamb chops sprinkled with za’atar and roasted, tabbouleh at every meal, hummus and fresh babaghanoush, and escargot cooked with herbs and white wine (there is a lot of French influence in the culinary traditions of these countries, Fallous explains).
Au Za’atar offers all of those dishes, divided into small mezze plates and larger platters, as well as a number of daily specials, spicy stuffed fish, different kinds of kebabs, and kebbe kras, a blend of bulgur wheat and beef that is Lebanon’s national dish. “We’re trying to make it a place where people will come to have a meal once or twice a week,” he says.
You’ll want a glass of wine with your meal, and you’ll choose it from a list of small, family-owned producers, which will eventually include Lebanese wines as well as the global selections on offer now. Drinkers can also opt for the Lebanese 961 beer, which just released a flavor made with, coincidentally, za’atar, which Fallous says will highlight the presence of the seasoning in dishes. “It’s a very unique spice,” he says. “It’s hard to find za’atar here. You have to import it from Lebanon to get the real stuff,” which is a blend of different types of thyme plus roasted sesame seeds and sumac.
Au Za’atar’s banquette-lined space also features an outdoor patio that will open when the weather warms. That will make an ideal place for Middle Eastern breakfast, says Fallous — he and his team plan to offer labneh with eggs, shakshuka, and hummus with meat and pine nuts.
The restaurant has been in soft opening mode this week, and it makes its official debut on Monday. Look for breakfast and lunch to roll out sometime in the next couple of weeks.
Hit the next page for a few photos.